Controversial Anti-Sex Trafficking Bill Could Get Vote This Month

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio J. Scott Applewhite/AP File Photo

But lawmakers could face an uphill battle reconciling the bill with its tech-friendly House counterpart.

A controversial anti-sex trafficking bill that’s pitted the tech industry against human rights advocates for months may finally get a Senate vote in the coming weeks.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, told Nextgov he hopes to have his Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act go to the floor by the end of January.

“This week we’re voting on judges, next week we have the continuing resolution and I’m told that the week after that it’s possible,” Portman said Thursday after a pro-SESTA rally on Capitol Hill. Having already amassed 65 bipartisan cosponsors, it’s highly likely the bill will pass.

On National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, Portman partnered with the advocacy group World Without Exploitation to host the rally and spoke alongside Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who both originally cosponsored the bill. The event also featured testimonies from sex trafficking survivors and the debut of a public service announcement in which celebrities including Amy Schumer and Seth Meyers expressed their support for the bill.

SESTA would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, a piece of legislation that prevents websites from being held legally liable for content generated by users. As it stands, Section 230 immunity doesn’t apply in federal criminal cases, but SESTA would eliminate immunity in state criminal and civil lawsuits. Doing so would allow groups other than Justice Department to go after any party with “knowing conduct” that facilitates sex trafficking.

Supporters praise the legislation as a much-needed weapon in the fight to take down online forums for human traffickers, but the tech industry argues the bill could stifle innovation and open the door for frivolous lawsuits against social media sites. Portman told Nextgov tech industry input prompted a number of changes to the original legislation, and while many industry groups and legal experts still oppose SESTA, some have reversed their positions.

While SESTA balances victims’ rights with the “legitimate” concerns of the tech industry, its House counterpart “missed the mark,” Portman said. The House version gives more protection to online platforms by setting a higher standard for victims to prove that a website was knowingly involved in trafficking. Reconciling the two bills could prove challenging, but Portman said he’s “optimistic” lawmakers will find a solution.

Still, there remain obstacles to getting the bill through the Senate. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., issued a hold on the bill in November, and while the motion doesn’t rule out a vote, it could drag out an otherwise speedy floor debate.